The term 'baby farming' was used in the nineteenth century to describe the fostering of infants, for a fee. It usually involved an infant being put into the 'care' of a wet-nurse, who would breastfeed the infant. Otherwise, the child was fed artificially with cow's milk, which was a very difficult and dangerous practice. Many infants died while in the care of baby farmers. The term first came into use in the British press in 1867, and was appearing in Australian newspaper articles by the end of that year. On 5 March 1890, the Age newspaper portrayed baby farmers as 'ready tools in the hands of heartless mothers, prepared to adopt illegitimate offspring whose lives they regard as of less value than a dog's'.
The Public Health Amendment Act 1883 was Victoria's first attempt to legally regulate the practice referred to as baby-farming. It made local boards responsible for overseeing the registration of children placed in the homes of people other than their families.
In 1890, Victoria passed the Infant Life Protection Act, partly in response to public concern about baby farming, as well as infanticide. The Infant Life Protection Act was not implemented for nearly three years after it was passed. Melbourne newspapers often carried stories of baby farming scandals, most notably a case that led to the execution of Frances Knorr in 1894.
Not coincidentally, an influential and emotive article about baby farming had been published that same year in Britain. In this article, the Rev. Benjamin Waugh, of the British National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children described the evils of the baby farmer:
It is this woman who is largely responsible for the terrible death rate among these illegitimates, which is permanently 100 per cent greater than it is amongst all other children…. Whilst in every thousand of the married-born it is 17; of the illegitimate, it is 37…. The deadliness of the receiver's house is the same whether she takes weekly payments or lump sums down. Idleness and bankruptcy can live on three starving children's payments, for there is a constant succession of unwanted children to be had…. And there is little check to her foul play. The child cannot complain; the police are not informed; and the neighbours, when they know a little, do not interfere .
In 1906, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (formed in Melbourne in 1896) convened a conference on infant life protection. At the conference, Selina Sutherland claimed that 'baby farmers' were not monsters, but poor women trying to make a living.
The lobbying of various women's and medical organisations led to a new Infant Life Protection Act in 1907.
In 1919, the Maintenance of Children Act provided for an allowance to be paid to mothers without the income to support their children.
The passage of the Adoption Act in 1928 which 'legalised' adoption provided mothers with another safe option to relinquish their infants.
Sources used to compile this entry: Jaggs, Donella, Neglected and criminal: foundations of child welfare legislation in Victoria, Centre for Youth and Community Studies, Phillip Institute of Technology, Melbourne, 1986; Laster, Kathy, 'Infanticide', in eMelbourne: the city past and present, Encyclopedia of Melbourne online, The University of Melbourne, 2008, http://www.emelbourne.net.au/biogs/EM00754b.htm; Waugh, Benjamin, 'Baby farming', Contemporary Review, no. 57, 1890, pp. 700-714.
Prepared by: Cate O'Neill
Created: 24 September 2009, Last modified: 26 April 2016